Free improv trio plays Barking Legs on Friday
The acclaimed European free improv trio Konk Pack, since forming in Budapest in 1997, is known for its dynamic, exciting performances with a propulsive energy that emits sparks of innovation, featuring clarinetist and lap-steel-guitarist Tim Hodgkinson and percussionist Roger Turner, both of London, plus Thomas Lehn of Cologne, Germany on analog synthesizer. The outfit’s October 11 performance at Barking Legs Theater kicks off the “Dennis Palmer Birthday Weekend” celebration, part of “The Old-Timey Avant-Garde Series,” paying tribute to the late co-founder of the arts education non-profit The Shaking Ray Levi Society (disclosure: I am on its board of directors) and half of the performing duo The Shaking Ray Levis with drummer Bob Stagner.
Tim Hodgkinson is a major figure in the art-rock pantheon, having co-founded the legendary group Henry Cow in 1968 with Fred Frith, and since the band’s breakup in 1978, Hodgkinson has carried the experimental spirit of that band by continuing to defy classification with diverse work. In Konk Pack, he stretches the limits of the clarinet and a modified lap steel guitar with perplexing sounds that are difficult to place. Thomas Lehn’s instrument of choice for Konk Pack is the EMS Synthi A analog synth, and its control panel appearance makes it look more like a detonation device than a musical instrument. Appropriately, Lehn pries diabolical and unfamiliar electronic madness from it, and via email, Turner praised Lehn’s ability “to make something extraordinary of an initially unpromising sound.” Roger Turner is on a short list of percussionists in the world with both great technical skill and an impossibly wide, daring and imaginative sonic palette, and one of his great talents is to make every spontaneous moment sound incredibly articulate—things might get raucous or even disorderly, but he never sounds sloppy.
Free improvisation, which is improvisation that intentionally avoids any established genres such as jazz or rock, can elicit some strong positive and negative reactions from listeners, including confusion and pointed distaste; for an example, simply go to YouTube, search for Derek Bailey videos and read the user comments. Some hear abstract, non-melodic sounds as just being noise, but as Hodgkinson wrote via email, someone like that is “someone who thinks a kid could have painted Jackson Pollock.”
There is a different, unusual type of pleasure that can be enjoyed from adeptly executed free improv; rather than focusing on catchy melodies, the spontaneity of invention and the joy of expressing a new idea are elements at work. Playing in the free improv realm keeps one on his toes, as he scrambles for new sounds and self-edits in real-time, enjoying something that works before quickly moving on. One point of free improv is to never get stuck in a rut or routine. As Hodgkinson pointed out, regarding developing his own improvisational techniques over the years, “Work away at it. You get more technique, but you have to push it down inside so it doesn’t interfere.”
Each of the musicians in Konk Pack has known and collaborated with Dennis Palmer over the years, and Hodgkinson cited a particularly memorable London concert which featured Dennis, the late cellist Tom Cora, the Dutch post-punk band The Ex, and himself. Of the three Konk Pack members, though, Turner had the closest friendship with Dennis—both are featured on the mid-’90s album Short in the U.K. with Bob Stagner and Steve Beresford—and those who knew Dennis well know that he forged deep bonds with people in a meaningful intertwining of music and life, combining aesthetics with admiration on a personal level.
“I always loved seeing Dennis up on stage, standing at the keyboard beaming it out with a great preacher’s sense of transcendent lunacy, grinning and wailing and coming out with music that no one on the planet will ever witness again,” wrote Turner. “He was a full beam person indeed, same in life, same in music.”
When discussing what might be in store for Konk Pack in the future, Hodgkinson and Turner spoke as if it were impossible to separate music from life, staying flexible while not being burdened with a concrete pathway for the trio. The way forward is simple, according to Hodgkinson: “Keep checking we are still happening, and, if we are, go on.” For this trio, which lives and breathes music, there is a difference between forcing things and living in the moment, being compelled to create compelling music.
(Dennis Palmer Birthday Weekend),
8 p.m. October 11.
Barking Legs Theater,
1307 Dodds Ave.,